By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire faces a possible voter backlash along with critical ads from gun control advocates following her vote against President Barack Obama's bid to curb gun violence.
According to a survey by Public Policy Polling released Wednesday, Ayotte's approval rating stands at 44 percent, down 15 points since October when the organization last conducted a poll on her. The poll of 933 New Hampshire voters, from April 19 to April 21, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.2 percent.
Fifty percent of those polled said Ayotte's vote against background checks legislation would make them less likely to support her for re-election. Seventy-five percent said they supported background checks.
The survey did not make clear how much, if any, of the decline in her approval rating over six months was attributable to her April 17 vote that helped defeat the bill expanding background checks for gun purchasers.
Still, gun control proponents seized on the poll as a sign of the dangers awaiting members of Congress who vote with the gun lobby against popular legislation like the defeated bill.
"I think we are at a turning point," Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York said on Thursday at a breakfast roundtable with reporters hosted by The Christian Science Monitor.
"Lots of senators who thought it was safe to vote against it (gun control) ... aren't so sure anymore," Schumer said.
A gun-control group founded by former Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords of Arizona, who was wounded in a 2011 mass shooting in Arizona, began airing radio ads this week in New Hampshire criticizing Ayotte.
The group, Americans for Responsible Solutions, is also sponsoring ads aimed at Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky for helping defeat the bipartisan measure to expand background checks, which failed to advance in the U.S. Senate by a six vote margin.
"As Gabby said last week, if we can't keep our communities safe with the Congress we have, we will work to change Congress," said Pia Carusone, executive director of Giffords' group.
Ayotte, elected to the Senate with 60 percent of the vote in 2010, is not up for re-election until 2016.
McConnell faces re-election next year, and a Republican aide brushed off the ads against him.
"It is tough to be too pro-gun in Kentucky," the aide said.
Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling, said, "New Hampshire is a good bellwether for fallout from the gun vote."
"There's serious backlash from voters toward Kelly Ayotte for how she handled this issue," he said.
Ayotte has also drawn editorial criticism in New Hampshire from the Portsmouth Herald, which ripped into the senator with an editorial on Sunday headlined, "If you want gun control, vote Ayotte out of office."
It is unclear what, if any, lasting political damage she has suffered.
Jennifer Duffy, who tracks Senate races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said, "I suspect this will be old news by 2016."
Ayotte's office noted she offered alternative legislation last week, including measures designed to help keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill.
Ayotte, one of the few remaining Republican U.S. lawmakers from New England, was the only senator from the region to vote against the bipartisan measure.
"No matter what the system is, if we don't enforce it and prosecute it, then people will still try to violate it and felons will still try to get guns, so I think that's where our focus has to be," she said in an interview on WMUR-TV television station.
Senior Senate Democratic aides said it had been assumed by many in the party that Ayotte might vote for the proposal, but that they had received no assurances from her.
One aide said they expected her to possibly vote yes because veteran Senator John McCain of Arizona has been seen as a mentor of Ayotte, who is in her first term. McCain was among a handful of Senate Republicans who voted for the measure.
(Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Fred Barbash and Mohammad Zargham)